Hats off or on


A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.”

So writes humorist P.J. O’Rourke, presumably believing he was being humorous.

O’Rourke’s theorem is demonstrably wrong; the math doesn’t work. The suitability of hat to man depends on the hat and the man. And the climate: a man who would take off his hat to greet a lady on a January afternoon in, say, Butte, Montana needs not a hat but a thorough examination, organic and psychiatric, of the structure upon which it rests. Furthermore, in a Butte, Montana January the one stupid hat would be one made of straw. The only thing stupider would be no hat at all. In a blizzard, better a beanie than the dome left to the mercy of the unmerciful.

Quite far (1,313 miles) south of Butte, I have taken to wearing a hat, at least in the colder months. (Having recently sizzled from my scalp some accumulations, thankfully benign, of tissue the size and consistency of uncooked rice, The World’s Greatest Doctor advocated year-round headgear. I’m thinking about it). So have a few, a very few, other brave souls? Brave?

Yes, brave — for the operative word is “hat.” Not cap, tam, pulldowns; not Stetson or boater (in winter?) or bowler (in Arkansas?), those are, certainly, hats. No, hats as in fedora, like Bear Bryant wore, and Sinatra. And a Borsalino, like the Godfather, a gift from my bride (the Borsalino, not Brando). Brave, because we hardy handful, we who crown our crowns in snap-brim felt or wool, we endure the double-takes and the stares, indulge the snickers and abide the sarcasm of those who, like O’Rourke, think they are humorous.

For example:

“Hey, Coach — how’s that offensive line lookin’?”

“Oh, just fine, thanks. Uh, Roll Tide.”

Or:

“Frank, baby! Dooby-dooby-do?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, right. Uh, ring-a-ding-ding, you know.”

And just keep walking. All you can do, besides take comfort in the comfort the fabric provides. Okay, maybe feel a little smug, your noggin snug.

What happened to hats? Find a picture from the 1950s of Main Street in any Arkansas town of any size and you’re likely to see a men’s storefront sign touting Dobbs or Cavanaugh, brands once as much a part of the male lexicon as Budweiser and Viagra, now as faint, or forgotten, as Falstaff and Vitalis.

Here I should pause to note that I’m talking of hats in the city, hats worn by men who work in town, at desks or in offices. Cowboy hats and ball caps have long been mandatory in the countryside, where even farmers and ranchers with hair so thick barbed wire couldn’t penetrate to the flesh know that Ole Sol can make malignant masses of faces and ears. Construction workers — I’m omitting them for the fact that hardhats aren’t hard-headed, and thus appreciate the velocity attained by a hammer dropped from only a few feet.

President Kennedy sometimes gets the blame; his inaugural day formalwear included a top hat, but his “Ask not…” address was delivered bareheaded despite a stalled Atlantic front that not even a brilliant sun could temper. So perhaps Mrs. Kennedy wasn’t the only style-setter; by the mid-1960s the mans hat was on its way out. Today, a preponderance of the species walks about bareheaded in the harshest cold; and on rainy days, pick your season, those who didn’t plan ahead or forgot their umbrellas will leave their businesses for lunch with a scrap of newspaper held over their skulls, their sole, ineffectual defense against the wet.

Yeah, I’ve got a few ball caps myself. But last summer I acquired a lightweight “bucket” hat, a sub-species of the snap-brim that Sam Snead made famous. I wore it to a golf tournament, one in which my eldest granddaughter was playing. She sidled up to me and, whispering, begged that I take it off. “They sell hats in the pro shop, Granddad,” she advised. Indeed they did: all of them ball caps. Except now, I supposed, they were golf hats, too. (Sam Snead pre-dated Kennedy, in case you didn’t know). And, surveying the other dads and granddads, and watching a couple of tournaments on television, sure enough the ball cap was not simply the standard but the rule.

I can think of a lot of things that look stupider than a hat. I am willing to look stupid in a hat, or to tolerate those who think I look stupid. I am not willing to be stupid, at least deliberately. Hats off, or on, to anyone willing to sign up.

• • •

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.